Historically, in the 18th and 19th centuries, conservatism comprised a set of principles based on concern for established tradition, respect for authority and religious values. This form of classical conservatism is often considered to be exemplified by the writings of Edmund Burke and, in more robust form, Joseph de Maistre and the post-Enlightenment Popes. Contemporary liberalism - now called classical liberalism - advocated both political freedom for individuals and a laissez-faire free market in the economic sphere. Ideas of this sort were promulgated by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the American Founding Fathers.
The original "liberal conservatives" were those who combined conservative social attitudes with a classical-liberal economic outlook. Over time, the majority of conservatives in the Western world came to adopt free-market economic ideas, to the extent that such ideas are now generally considered and termed "conservative". Nonetheless, in some countries the term "liberal" continues to be used to describe those with pro-capitalist economic views. This is the case, for example, in mainland Europe (France, Italy, Spain) and (unusually for an English-speaking country) in Australia.
The liberal conservative tradition in the United States combines the economic individualism of the classical liberals with a Burkean form of conservatism (which has also become part of the American conservative tradition, for example in the writings of Russell Kirk).
In modern British English, "liberal conservatism" typically has a quite different meaning. Rather than referring to a combination of classical conservatism and free-market economic ideas, it refers to free-market (in this context, "conservative") economics allied with socially liberal views - on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, for example. This position is also associated with support for moderate forms of the welfare state and of environmentalism. "Liberal conservatism" in this sense is represented by the British Conservative Party under David Cameron, the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and the Irish parties Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats.